Dominance and Dogs: Who is the Boss?

Dogs often act as connectors in society. Upon sharing your life with a dog, you may find yourself talking to more people when you’re out and about at the dog park, cafes, etc, or you may even discover that your dog has helped you make new friends. This is one of the awesome benefits of life with dog. On the other hand, you’ll also be constantly flooded with advice on dog behavior and training from nearly everybody and anybody. This can be annoying at best and downright confusing, too. 


I am not quite sure why dog lovers feel the need to share their armchair wisdom with the world, as if owning a dog or once petting a dog qualifies them as an expert. This rarely happens in other fields of expertise. You really never hear people arguing with their cardiologist, “Clogged arteries? I don’t think so. I’ve had a heart all my life and I think that when I get chest pains and palpitations it's because my heart is just being dominant.” 


It’s a frustrating state of affairs for professional dog trainers and behavior consultants. Sometimes silly advice is just that, amusing and harmless. On occasion, though, listening to advice from non-pros can actually cause problems rather than relieve them. So, if you are struggling with an unsavory behavior or need help in any way, I highly recommend hiring a professional to teach you how to make life better for you and your dog. 


In the meantime, I’ll address some of the common misconceptions you may hear in the dog park, below: 


Never let your dog walk through a doorway in front of you. 


I believe the idea behind this bit of silliness is that to do so would cause the dog to think he is the leader and therefore, in charge. Even if this were true, I ask, to what end? They don’t have any money or opposable thumbs, their door-dominating ways can really only go so far. I say, until the dog knows how to operate a standard doorknob, let alone order pizza delivery, we humans are pretty secure in our dominion. 


But seriously, dogs attempt to walk through doors first because they are excited to go outside and because they aren't aware, nor beholden to, human constructs of politeness, not because they are trying to take over the world. Personally, I prefer my dogs to sit at doorways for their own safety. It is so dangerous to let dogs just bound through doors, be it the car, crate, or the front door to your house. I don't like my dogs to see an open door as a cue to “GO”. If you don't like your dog bounding out of the door ahead of you, then by all means teach him to sit and stay until released and then practice at all sorts of doorways to help your pup generalize and learn to work through distractions. 


Never feed your dog before you feed yourself.


The reasoning here is surely similar to the reasoning around doorways, above. Some people believe that dogs are rigidly constructed to think in terms of dominance or submission and it really just isn’t that simple. Dogs are thinking creatures with complex social structures. Making your dog wait while you eat first will not translate into other areas of their behavior, except perhaps to help practice with general impulse control. I personally prefer to feed my dogs their dinner before I get to mine so they can settle down for the evening and I can relax and enjoy my meal knowing that everyone (canine) in my household is well cared for and content. 


If your dog growls at you, roll or flip him on to his back and pin him down until he submits so he knows who is boss. 


Now here is where we run into truly dangerous territory. I will start by making light, but it comes with a serious message. If you roll and pin your dog, it does not tell him you are in charge. It tells him you are a jerk. Maybe even a dangerous, unpredictable jerk at that and this is no way to communicate clearly to, nor attempt to train, another sentient being. If your dog feels you are a threat he may well respond to your overtures with fight or flight and probably neither of those reactions will actually improve the situation or your relationship. Hear me now… dogs do not physically flip other dogs over in displays of dominance. Whenever you see what looks like canine submission, it has been voluntarily offered by the dog as a form of appeasement and polite communication. It has not been forced. Please do not attempt to mimic dog/dog communication anyway. You are human; you will mess it up. This is what training is for, it is a bridge used to teach you and your dog to communicate clearly. If you feel as though you have an adversarial relationship with your dog or that you are losing control in certain situations, please seek the advice of a professional trainer rather than an armchair expert. 

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